A Bet Concerning Neutrinos (Part 4)

Time for another bet!

As you may know, things are getting interesting. At first, a team of physicists claimed to see neutrinos travel from Switzerland to Italy 60 nanoseconds faster than light—but the machine made pulses of neutrinos lasting longer than that, so the whole experiment was dangerously tricky.

Now, it’s making pulses as short as 3 nanoseconds, and those physicists still see them arriving 60 nanoseconds early!

• Tomasso Dorigo, OPERA confirms: neutrinos travel faster than light!!, 17 November 2011.

This seems to have emboldened Curtis Faith, who wrote:

Care to take on another bet John?

I’d be willing to bet you:

• Two days of my time doing anything you choose within my areas of expertise.


• Two days of your time doing anything I choose within your areas of expertise.

For simplicity, we could assume the same criteria for determining the winner as your existing bet.

I replied:

Hi, Curtis! In principle I’m willing to take that bet… but I’m just curious, what sort of things might you want me to do? What sort of things might I want you to do?

I don’t want you to say I need to dig a ditch in your backyard. I don’t mind digging ditches too much, but I don’t really want to fly over to your place to do it, especially since if I lose my bet to Frederik I may be allowed just one round-trip flight for a year.

Seriously, I’m actually curious about what I can do, that you would value, that I’m not already doing.

Curtis replied:


It would be really mean of me to take your only flight. Besides, it seems to me that your expertise is probably not ditch digging.

I was thinking that I’d probably come over to Singapore (or Riverside) with my wife and spend the two days learning from you how to take some ideas that I’ve been working on forward. Getting advice for what sort of math I’d need to develop the ideas, where to learn more, prior work that might be relevant that I don’t know about that you might, etc. I’m guessing it would be the sort of discussions you have with graduate students but with someone who doesn’t have the same level of math skills (yet).

Since this is a very mild penalty, I said okay. We just need to write up an official contract here.

Okay: it’s your move, Curtis.

23 Responses to A Bet Concerning Neutrinos (Part 4)

  1. Curtis Faith says:

    Borrowing from the prior agreement with Frederik, I have substituted my name and made the appropriate adjustments with some suggested wording to handle the difference in the terms for the bet itself:

    This bet concerns whether neutrinos can go faster than light. John Baez bets they cannot. Curtis Faith bets that they can.

    At any time before October 2021, either John or Curtis can claim they have won this bet. When that happens, they will try to agree whether it’s true beyond a reasonable doubt, false beyond a reasonable doubt, or uncertain that neutrinos can (under some conditions) go faster than light. If they cannot agree, the situation counts as uncertain.

    If they decide it’s true, Curtis will communicate with John to determine a mutually agreeable time and location for a visit that will take place within 1 year of the decision that neutrinos can go faster than light. John agrees to spend two working days advising Curtis on his amateur mathematical and physics scientific pursuits.

    If they decide it’s false, John will communicate with Curtis to determine an appropriate set of tasks for his two days based on Curtis’s expertise and John’s needs at that time, these currently include: writing, trading and finance, business and entrepreneurship, programming and software development. Curtis agrees to perform those two working days worth of tasks of John’s choosing within 1 year of the decision that neutrinos cannot go faster than light.

    If they decide it’s uncertain, they can renegotiate the bet (or just decide not to continue it).

  2. gelada says:

    This is an interesting concept, the idea of paying in “expert time” needs to be taken further I think.

    I am shocked however to find this whole discussion does not start with this cartoon: http://xkcd.com/955/

  3. some guy on the street says:

    I still want an evacuated sub-alpine/apennine optical tunnel, to actually race neutrinos against simultaneous light. Or is the Earth sufficiently transparent to photons within CERN’s energy spectrum?

    Of course, I myself wouldn’t mind terribly if what we call neutrinos are actually a scissors crossing, although that would be admittedly weird.

    • John Baez says:

      Some guy on the street writes:

      I still want an evacuated sub-alpine/apennine optical tunnel, to actually race neutrinos against simultaneous light.

      It would be a bit expensive to build a tunnel from the LHC all the way to Gran Sasso: that’s 700 kilometers! Maybe we could get away with a shorter one, but then of course the (supposed) difference in time between the light and neutrino arrivals will be smaller. OPERA team is getting 60 nanoseconds for 700 kilometers. If that’s right (which I don’t believe) you’d need about 12 kilometers for each nanosecond of time difference.

      Or is the Earth sufficiently transparent to photons within CERN’s energy spectrum?

      No! No form of electromagnetic radiation easily goes through 700 kilometers of rock. For neutrinos, on the other hand, it’s a piece of cake.

      Of course, I myself wouldn’t mind terribly if what we call neutrinos are actually a scissors crossing, although that would be admittedly weird.

      Since the folks at CERN can presumably send information to Gran Sasso using neutrinos, a trick like that doesn’t seem like a possible explanation.

      • some guy on the street says:

        John likes taking all my fun away…

        To be slightly less frivolous, the 20cm uncertainties claimed for the separation of source and detector just seem much too tiny to me; however, as long as it isn’t possible to directly compare time of flight for photons vs. neutrinos along the most probable (or shortest available) trajectory, it seems unsound to claim that neutrinos have travelled “faster than light”. At most we can say they’ve found a way they can traverse faster than anything else we could send by available paths, and pick up at the far end. Gravitons would also be an interesting competitor, but I hear they’re slippery.

        How about sending a programmable neutrino source to the moon?

      • John Baez says:

        Some guy on the street wrote:

        John likes taking all my fun away.

        Sorry… physics is about having as much as fun possible after the universe has taken all your fun away (everything that’s not real, anyway).

        I think physicists will straighten out this puzzle in less than a decade. Accurate measurements like this are the kind of challenge some people really love… and they’re good at it.

        How about sending a programmable neutrino source to the moon?

        It’s very hard to detect neutrinos, so you’d have to make a lot of them to detect neutrinos made on the Moon. Sorry to take away your fun again, but this seems very tough. A particle accelerator like CERN can make a nice beam of neutrinos, which is why we can see a few—very few!—700 kilometers away. But beaming a noticeable amount of neutrinos all the way from the Moon would be harder.

        The supernova 1987A was 168,000 light years away, and we saw neutrinos from that. However, this explosion released 1046 joules of energy—about what you’d get if you turned all the mass of our Sun into energy! 99% of this energy was released in the form of neutrinos. It released a total of about 1058 neutrinos. We saw 24.

  4. Sergey Ten says:

    That doesn’t look like normal bet – there was no odds estimation. John should have bet at least 4 of his days against Curtis 2. (actually more like couple of billions, but slavery was officially abolished and Curtis would have to come up with elixir of immortality anyway)

    • John Baez says:

      Hey, he agreed to it!

    • Curtis Faith says:

      Well, since John is trying to save the planet and that happens to be one of my goals, I figure I’ll be working on one of my goals no matter who wins the bet.

      Besides, the marginal utility of my having two days of John’s time is greater than the marginal utility of two days of my own time, from my perspective by a sizable factor. After all, I get two days of my own time every two days.

    • John Baez says:

      Like my bets with Frederik de Roo, my bet with Curtis is a friendly one, where the world should win either way.

      I’ve also made a smaller bet with Heather Vandagriff, where she’ll give me a Tennessee ham if neutrinos go slower than light, and I’ll give her a comparable value in nice cloth from Singapore if they go faster.

  5. Robert M Stahl says:

    Why is there no discussion of the work of Randell L. Mills?

    • John Baez says:

      Randell Mills’ bizarre theories have little to do with what we’re discussing here.

      • Robert M Stahl says:

        What is a scientist (other than a fairy) for not considering the work of another scientist larger body of work, but defers to Wikipedia (an arsenal for the status quo), or for what might be the largest catastrophe humanity has ever faced concerning the myriad of mathematically deviant events called extinctions having occurred, like seven times in the million years of humans on earth (against the backdrop of a structure missing entirely in civilization, Bertrand Russell), and to which Mills’ work included as part of a society that would, also, put James Lovelock’s work in perspective, might accomplish something worthy of their genetic makeup. Since humans have forced both hot and cold conditions, this is a double cocked problem, not easy, or easily dismissed by baton twirlers. With effort tying reality with imagination, one comes to understand something larger. The history of Mills efforts you entirely miss by this propaganda called the status quo (Wikipedia), however ratcheted down in tradition we have become, is so much larger than any penny ante doodoo, but it takes looking. It would be a first to consider some larger picture, humanity, and then we may treat intelligently for once such a planet as ours suffering from something very real (over and over) now, if not just learn something other than repetition?

        • John Baez says:

          I’m not ‘deferring to Wikipedia’. I’ve examined Randell Mills’ work in detail, since someone has repeatedly offered me thousands of dollars to write a report on it. I was initially fascinated by his simple formula for certain ionization energies, which gave approximately correct results, but I decided that none of his other ideas hold water. I was linking to Wikipedia so that people who’d never heard of Mills could quickly read something about him. Since he has managed to get large sums of money from investors, I don’t think we need to worry about him much.

          (Since you haven’t posted here before, you probably don’t know that insults and rudeness are not allowed. Future comments containing remarks like ‘penny ante doodoo’, ‘baton twirlers’ and so on will be deleted. I never allow such things here.

          Furthermore, Mills’ work is not related to the subject of this post—except insofar as ‘neutrino’ rhymes with ‘hydrino’.)

        • Curtis Faith says:

          I’d not be so quick to insult someone. I thought it quite ironic given that my very brief search of Randell L. Mills name in Google turned up a Physics Forum thread that mentioned a prior discussion of Mill’s work:

          The penultimate post of that brief 1998 SPR discussion, dated January 25, 1998, was from John Baez, who wrote that even though the theory seemed nutty to him, it did make “a nontrivial testable prediction,” namely, “a simple formula for the first ionization energy of an ion with only 2 electrons–that is, the energy it takes to ionize the first electron.”

          Baez noted that the formula matched experiment up to 3 significant figures and at least up to Z = 9. He added, “This is pretty darn good if Mills claims to be ignoring relativistic effects…”

          So it seems that John’s hardly the one speaking without having done his research. I found the above in less than a minute.

  6. Curtis Faith says:


    I hope that Barcelona is treating you well. Did you see the Gaudi Cathedral?

    By the standards of current science, it appears that the question of neutrino velocity has been adequately disproven in most minds. However, the original experimenters have not yet put the nail in the coffin.

    I don’t know what will happen, I try to keep an open mind. So do you.

    I do know, that it is impossible for information to travel faster than the speed of light. I believe I can prove this mathematically with your help.

    But first, a challenge and an escalation of terms:

    I offer a unique double-or-nothing opportunity which will last for 24 hours from the time you read this whenever that should first occur. Should you accept, I will give you my conjecture which consists solely of a simple equation.

    You will have 24 hours to prove or disprove it. If you disprove it, I lose immediately.

    If you cannot disprove it, then you must choose an open problem of mathematical physics, the most difficult one you know. I will then have 24 hours to show to submit a paper showing how the ideas embodied in my conjecture open up significant new areas for research. Areas worthy of research with a paper with your name on the top. The paper must be of sufficient quality that you would accept it as a Ph.D thesis.

    Then you will choose the winner by deciding whether or not neutrinos can travel faster than light.

    If you choose that I lose, I will help you with any task you choose for as long as it takes. I will make it my first priority.

    If you choose that I win, then I will travel to visit you where we can discuss the other ideas that follow naturally from the research that prompted this equation and conjecture and you will write me a letter of recommendation to have my paper submitted for a Ph.D to the institution or institutions of my choosing.

    If you find the above escalation acceptable, please let me know below. A simple yes or no will be sufficient.

    If you need clarification of the terms, please propose them below.

    – Curtis

    • John Baez says:

      Curtis wrote:

      I hope that Barcelona is treating you well.

      Yes, I’m having a great time. I’m getting to know some cool biologists, and they’re giving me lots of great things to think about—mainly about biodiversity, and how it’s related to information, and how it changes thanks to evolution. For example, Richard Reeve works on the viruses that cause influenza and hoof-and-mouth disease. He’s got lots of data on their genomes, so he can test models of how they evolve.

      Did you see the Gaudi Cathedral?

      La Sagrada Família? Not yet, but we’re going there next Wednesday.

      By the standards of current science, it appears that the question of neutrino velocity has been adequately disproven in most minds. However, the original experimenters have not yet put the nail in the coffin.

      The OPERA team now thinks there were one or two problems with their original experiment. They fixed these and repeated the experiment in May. Now they say the neutrinos are going slower than light. Three other experiments using the same neutrino source—Borexino, ICARUS, and LVD—are getting the same result.

      So I’d say the coffin is nailed shut at this point. It’s mainly because I’m so busy that I haven’t yet demanded my reward from Frederik De Roo and Heather Vandagriff and you!

      Of course I don’t mind waiting for more evidence, but I don’t know if people plan any other experiments.

      I do know, that it is impossible for information to travel faster than the speed of light. I believe I can prove this mathematically…

      I don’t think you can mathematically prove a fact about the physical world… unless you start from some assumptions about the physical world. So the big question is: what are your assumptions, and should we believe them more than we already believe that neutrinos go slower than light?

      … with your help.

      Hmm, you’re veering dangerously close to item 15 on the crackpot index:

      15. 10 points for each statement along the lines of “I’m not good at math, but my theory is conceptually right, so all I need is for someone to express it in terms of equations”.

      I know it’s well-meant, but I’m afraid the complicated bet you’re proposing is a bit off-putting. So, I won’t accept it. But if you want to send me your idea and get my take on it, that’s fine; no bet required.

      • Curtis Faith says:

        I apologize for the off-putting suggestion. I intended no offense.

        And thank you John for the kind offer to take a look at the idea.

        I should clarify. I didn’t mean to imply that I needed your help for the math. The math is clear and finished.

        I need help to review the form. I have always been given poor marks for skipping steps in proofs because I don’t do homework.

        When I know something I go onto another concept. That means I often don’t see certain steps as necessary in a proof because it is not apparent to me that others won’t see them as obvious.

        In my experience, it is far better to do the research so that the presentation will not create false Bayesian positives for woo because of inartful or misapplied notation or skipped steps which others interpret as “here a miracle happens.”

        Your comment in the forum last year that mathematicians worked with abstractions made me realize that I’d been doing applied math at graduate level as part of my computer science autodidactic education starting at age 16. Your recommendation of Elwes’s Mathematics 1001 which my wife recommended helped me realize that I had achieved sufficient coverage of the problems. Not having attended any university, I didn’t have the traditional mechanism for determining the scope of my coverage of the field.

        So, no danger of getting those 10 points in this particular case. Unless I’m really insane. ;-)

        It has been amazing to me how many people just don’t seem to understand why it is necessary to use mathematics to prove a theory. By my standards, physics knows nothing but believes much. There should be a very high standard for canonical knowledge.

        Mathematical physics should be the only kind. You need to start from the ground up.

        I’ll send something to you later today. I’ll keep it short, a few paragraphs should suffice.

  7. Curtis Faith says:

    John, did you see this?

  8. These are the first of my winnings on some bets concerning the famous OPERA experiment that seemed to detect neutrinos going faster than light […]

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